It seems that 3D printing is all the rage these days so I thought I’d examine this exciting technology a little more in-depth to find out what all the hubbub is about. While the technology itself isn’t new, the fact that equipment and materials pricing is dramatically coming down in the space is the difference right now. In future years, I predict we will all have 3D printers sitting on our desks. I would love to have one of these to make models of planets and other celestial bodies…ahhh someday.
3D Printing – A Closer Look
Additive manufacturing technology doesn’t really resemble traditional CNC techniques, and that’s why 3D printing has become such a major topic in recent years. While the name might suggest that these are printers used to put three-dimensional images on paper, 3D printing devices are generally used to produce objects by layering different amounts of material (such as plastic) that are shot out of jets. Some of the most advanced 3D printing devices can yield models that closely copy the look and feel of complex and finished products. Engineering consumer goods in this way can ultimately cut costs. Imagine how this might transform R&D as well.
However, despite the positive applications of this technology, there are some negatives as well. For example, plastic figurines are being made that truly resemble the originals made by artists. While this might be a good thing for those who collect pop culture items, it’s most certainly not for the artist. I worry that intellectual property disputes will arise at an alarming rate if these printers ever do go mainstream. And this is a very real concern in the industry. Nonetheless, real progress is being made in the fields such as surgical implants and model patterns and these are the areas that I find most exciting.
Applications in Science
Layering different amounts of steel over other surfaces (such as those created by 3D printers) is an innovative method of making machine parts. This is more accurate than traditional techniques, and it’s quickly becoming less expensive as well. The potential applications within various science fields are staggering as well. For instance, replicating ancient artifacts for archaeological research has always been a time consuming task. 3D printing technology is able to produce almost identical copies of priceless museum pieces. Forensic pathologists are starting to use 3D printers as a way to reconstruct evidence, and paleontologists are beginning to use 3D printers to make reproductions of fossilized bone structures. Astronomers may soon be using them to replicate crystal matrix patterns found in asteroid fragments.
Various types of 3D scanning technologies can help researchers reproduce objects without the use of molding techniques. This is a huge boon for anyone who needs to replicate something without destroying it. What might interest computer users is that there is a movement to produce open-source versions of 3D printing technology that could be used to make 3D printing presses that aren’t encumbered by patent laws. These presses would be free from even hardware patents, which make them attractive as a small business solution. I can also see ways that 3D printers can be used in classrooms as well in the future…assuming schools can afford them.
I’m personally excited about the future of 3D printing but do have reservations in terms of IP violations and such. Regardless, this is an exciting technology and I like the direction it’s headed.